Finding qualified special education teachers is not the only staffing challenge facing Hawaii schools.

As of Feb. 1, one out of every three school psychologist positions within the Department of Education was vacant. Only 56 percent of high-level occupational therapist positions are filled. And the DOE is also trying to recruit 484 educational assistants — employees of varying skills and education levels who work with special education students.

The vacancies come at a time of increased attention on Hawaii’s special education inclusion rates. Hawaii lags behind the national average in the amount of time special education students spend in inclusive classrooms with their peers.

“When we have discussions about inclusion being the best practice for the special education community, there is a need to understand what resources are available to make the inclusion setting a success,” Board of Education Vice Chair Brian De Lima said.  “It goes hand in hand that that if you are unable to fill the vacancies then you are unable to implement best practices for providing the best education for special education students.”

Recruiting special education teachers remains the Department of Education's top staffing priority, but the department is also trying to chip away at other vacancies.

Recruiting special education teachers remains the Department of Education’s top staffing priority, but the department is also trying to chip away at other vacancies.

Hawaii Department of Education

The DOE has been implementing a number of short- and long-term strategies to address the problem, Barbara Krieg, the DOE’s assistant superintendent of human resources, told the Board of Education on Tuesday.

Educational assistants are no longer required to have an associate’s degree, but instead can take a course and pass an exam to qualify for the position, Krieg said.

The DOE is also streamlining its application process, making better use of social media as a recruiting tool, increasing advertising, and looking at ways to occasionally hire experienced employees at a higher pay rate than the most basic entry level pay or offer bonuses for some positions.

“We tend to be competitive for upper- and mid-range salaries,” Krieg said. “We’re not so competitive for entry level.” 

The starting salary for a 10-month educational assistant is $26,030 a year. Starting pay for a school psychologist is $55,236.

Some parts of the state are hit harder than others. Recruiting in Maui County is the biggest challenge right now, Krieg said. Of the 484 vacant educational assistant positions, 85 are on Maui and 71 are on the big island.

“When complex areas or schools are unable to fill vacant positions then we contract out for folks who can help provide services to students,” Assistant Superintendent Suzanne Mulcahy said in an email sent by the DOE’s communications department.  “In the event that someone is not available, which has been a real concern for both speech pathologists and school psychologists, the case load is redistributed to provide coverage. This may mean that all the speech pathologists each take on another 2 or 3 cases and go to other schools, for example.”

Hawaii's high cost of living, market demands, the availability of training programs and turnover rates all impact Department of Education vacancies.

Hawaii’s high cost of living, market demands, the availability of training programs and turnover rates all impact Department of Education vacancies.

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